If you want to know how to look after suicidal young people, you can’t do much better than read this. It’s the true story of a teenager who credits her teacher with saving her life. What follows is a summary – the full version can be listened to at BBC Sounds.
Polly had struggled with anxiety and low moods throughout school and had gone through various Associations that provided talking therapy. Unprovoked, her mental health started to spiral, and she suffered a severe depressive episode. She became dependent on self-harm. She opened up to her Head of Year, who supported her incredibly. This teacher contacted services immediately and did all she could to get Polly the help she needed. She stayed behind after school for hours if Polly ever felt unsafe and got cover for her lesson when Polly was in crisis. She made sure Polly told her father how she was feeling. As Polly’s situation became more serious and she became increasingly suicidal, her teacher gave her yet more of her time. She would phone Polly in the evening if she felt she was going to hurt herself. When Polly first attempted suicide, she checked on Polly’s closest friends to ensure they were coping.
What lessons can be learned?
- Polly’s teacher took charge. She saw a young person in distress and didn’t leave her to find a solution to her own mental health problems.
- She found ways to make Polly open up: “I was trying to get a balance between leading her to say things but also just giving her the space to say things.”
- She understood that Polly felt guilty: “Any time she did start opening up, she would initially close back up and say she felt that she was attention-seeking.”
- She wasn’t afraid to challenge Polly and run the risk of upsetting her if she knew it was in Polly’s best interests. For example, when Polly lied her way out of hospital: “I could see, and I knew, and I asked her what she’d told them to be discharged, and I know that’s quite an intrusive question, but I knew she hadn’t told them the truth.”
- She understood the importance of family and made sure Polly opened up to her father even though it was painful for her to do so.
- She knew that she had to share her insights in order to keep Polly safe.
- She realised that care requires persistence and continuity.
- She knew that Polly would continue to need support in the future.
My daughter should have been encouraged to talk to us, but her mental health carers did not do so for fear of breaking confidentiality. Information was not shared to keep her safe. The key in Polly’s case was that someone realised she needed to do that and persisted in encouraging Polly to open up to her family. Polly admits this saved her life. Polly’s teacher mediated between her and her dad.
Successful treatment requires individual care, someone to take charge of the circumstances in which the mentally ill person finds themselves, not rely on them to sort it out for themselves. As Polly said: “forcing me to speak to him (my dad), while uncomfortable at the time, has made a big difference long-term”.
This is what my daughter required and was desperately looking for. Shortly before she died, she said: “You have to be really crazy to get any help”. I’d like to think that all young people could be treated with the care and diligence shown by Polly’s teacher. As you can see, it can save a life.